“But some of the names bear no relation to November 1989,” someone quibbled on Facebook, after seeing this list. He was right. Some of the names can’t possibly bear any relation to the date as the people to whom they belong were born around that time or slightly later. Others were just children catching snowflakes in the squares where the Velvet Revolution’s rallies were held. But November 1989 is no longer the exclusive property of their revolutionary parents. Anniversaries of the Velvet Revolution now live their own lives, focusing on issues that are relevant right today. In fact, these anniversaries now have a history of their own, which – assembled into a time-lapse film – would add up to a minor epic. With each episode being different.
This year’s episode has been disastrous. Since November last year, the virus has claimed as many lives as if an entire town in Slovakia had been swallowed up by the earth – a town the size of Detva, Levoča or Šamorín. Shells are now exploding inches from our heads: just a few days ago we lost the artist Miroslav Cipár, father of the logo of Slovakia’s Velvet Revolution, followed by the musician Miro Žbirka; and before we even had time to mourn their passing properly, we lost the irreplaceable writer and journalist Eugen Gindl. This black November, we have lost chunks of ourselves. No one knows what more may lie ahead and the idea that Central European Forum might host celebrated guests from abroad is simply inconceivable just now. But even during the plague people held feasts, because such is human nature: those of us who have something to celebrate must celebrate. Today, of all days, and here, of all places.
We have gathered 25 miniature texts by 25 authors and are immensely grateful for their commitment, talent and speed. Central European Forum, held every year since 2009 to mark November 1989, has always been a celebration of words and sentences that make sense. Welcome to the feast.
Photo: Peter Župník
By now you will have come to terms with their having broken up Czechoslovakia, with their thieving – taking turns to do it every four years; with their having turned ideals into parodies; dusting off all that old guff about the nation and God since, to begin with, they were scared to dust off the guff about the working people and non-working intelligentsia, but now they’re no longer scared, seeing that you had no trouble coming to terms with it, and also for the simple reason that this is what they’ve always been like deep down: one thing leads to another and the other cannot exist without the former, Tiso shakes hands with Husák, and Husák with Brezhnev, and Stalin with Hitler; you’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s the honest ones who get eliminated in elections while the dishonest ones get elevated, which logically leads to the next stage, whereby it’s no longer just material goods that get stolen and even if, according to the Gospel of John, the Word has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, these days the Word has not become flesh, it’s turned into a soap bubble from a bubble blower, and so you call out a fascist as a fascist in your puny little voice, while he at the top of his voice has just launched into a song about your liberal fascism and has the people swaying to the rhythm, enchanted and joining the chorus, because they’ve even stolen your words now and that’s the beginning of the end, they’ve stolen your words and their meaning, that’s why now truth means lie and lie means truth, and good means evil and evil means good, that’s why freedom is no longer what we had dreamt of during the November rallies, freedom from a bubble blower is the freedom not to wear a face mask and lie about everything, so just come to terms with it like a hen in the yard scratching the ground for leftover grain even though way back – but that was a long long time ago and you are not a historian either – way back it saw the farmer, purple in the face, chop off, one by one, the heads of every chicken in the shed, but you’re still here, scratching at the ground and if you’re a fiction writer and aren’t ashamed to stay alive, one day you will write a novel about all this.
The question is: who for?
Photo: Peter Župník
17 November 1989 should remain embedded in our collective memory. Otherwise it risks being pushed into a grey void by the indifferent dimensions of the human mind.
New generations need to be reminded of what it was that those who thought freely and critically had objected to: the totalitarian one-party rule which, among other things, caused our individual ego to slowly dissolve and lose its voice as it forced it to embrace the cult of the collective and the masses promoted by the totalitarian regime towards the uncritical acceptance of the powers-that-be.
Following the victory of the Velvet Revolution we believed, in a velvety sort of way, that pluralism, democracy and freedom of speech would prevail, as would human justice and the rule of law. This was widely expected by scholars, environmentalists, artists, dissidents and all thinking people in general who longed to live in a stable, prosperous country. But we had not been taught to be free and take responsibility for ourselves. Czechoslovakia was broken up at lightning speed and without a referendum, so that an independent Slovakia emerged that lacked the experience of running the complex structure of a new state. Because, of course we couldn’t build on the tradition of Tiso’s proto-fascist wartime Slovak state. But then, in the brutal 1990s, we saw fresh shoots of neo-fascism and nationalism raise their heads, something I, for one, had naively regarded as having gone for good. A period of untrammelled privatization ensued, with the nouveaux riches incapable of coping with the “gifts” of Mečiarism: we saw unprofessional politicians, corruption, a new poverty, religious fanaticism, attacks on hard-gained womens’ rights, the turning of a blind eye to the needs of sexual and ethnic minorities. All these things still divide our society today, a society additionally rankled by the anxiety brought about by the pandemic and climate change.
However, the world out there, the European continent that we are a part of, has been calling on states to take responsibility for the environment, to show social empathy, tolerance, compassion with refugees – demands that are the needle on the compass for our small country, too. If nothing else, to stay true to the spirit of our desire for a new world order, the seed of the events of 17 November.
Photo: Peter Župník
Recently I found one hundred and three Czechoslovak crowns in an old cupboard. Later that evening, when I mentioned it to a friend over a glass of beer, he suggested that I go to Hotel Laugaricio in our hometown of Trenčín, where they would accept the old currency. That sounded bizarre to me, obviously. But then, a few days later, as my girlfriend and I left the cinema after a late night show, I thought to myself: why not give it a try? We walked past the Prior department store and surveyed the old building. Everything was quiet and all the windows were dark. We walked up to the entrance, and I plucked up the courage to open the door. We saw light emerging from around the corner. After a few steps we found ourselves in front of the reception desk. Can I help you? The woman barked. I asked her for a double room. When I produced my ID, she looked at it with a frown and gave me a nasty look. At first I thought she didn’t like that my brand new ID was issued only in 2021. Locals are not allowed to stay here, she announced after a pause. Suddenly remembering how things used to work here, I slipped her a twenty-crown note. She smiled and handed us a key. The wall of our room boasted a portrait of Husák and the TV screen displayed the test card panel. So we devised our own entertainment and then fell asleep, exhausted.
At around nine in the morning someone banged on our door. It wasn’t the secret police; it was just the cleaner. We scrambled down to the hotel restaurant and ordered some deep-fried cheese and beer. We paid 18 crowns all-in. You see, we found ourselves in the realm of nostalgic memory, a mythical place untouched by inflation. After breakfast I headed straight for the factory where I’d been assigned a job after graduation.
Photo: Peter Župník
1. Don’t be surprised if you find society becoming barbaric and mobs speaking the language of violence. Bear in mind that the arts have always been vilified.
2. Don’t be surprised that the era of charlatans has arrived. Remember that when Daniel Defoe’s articles on the plague sounded the alarm, his compatriots responded by disparaging and mocking the author. “Daniel, we beg you,” they said, “why make so much fuss about some summer malady?”
3. Are you being attacked from both the left and the right? Rejoice! Imagine how embarrassing it would be if the same furious chorus suddenly crowned you with a laurel wreath and put you on a pedestal.
4. Stick to Beckett’s mantra: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
5. Remember that the good patriot is not the one who claims to be one as he beats his chest, but the one who tries to make the most of his talent, even in the worst possible circumstances. Like the musicians on the Titanic, who kept playing until the last moment.
6. Don’t deceive yourself that we are civilized beings. Just have a good look at the entire twentieth century.
7. Don’t be misled by what you see in a bookshop, a restaurant or your own cosy living room. All that is just the veneer of civilization. We all still belong to the animal species known as homo sapiens.
8. Never feed hatred. If you feed hatred, it will only get more and more hungry. Yesterday it was the Jews, today it is intellectuals, tomorrow it will be ethnic minorities, homosexuals, the disabled, the overweight, those with a stutter, those who wear spectacles. Yes, you will be next.
9. Harbour no illusions: we will all end up as Kafka’s hunger artist, we will slowly fade away and our place will be taken by predators feeding on raw meat and bursting with brute strength. But until that moment let us try to remain human beings, even though that is not risk-free either.
10. Mahatma Gandhi believed that truth and love would sooner or later prevail over tyranny. A nice idea, but what if Gandhi was wrong? What would happen? Nothing. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Photo: Peter Župník
I had a new kitchen fitted the other day. When he was done, the builder rushed to his next job without even bothering to clear up the mess. He said this was a very busy time as everyone was at home, having their place done up. The months of collective isolation we’ve been through over the past year and a half may go down in memory as the era of mass interior refurbishments. Both in the literary and metaphorical sense. We’ve had the time and opportunity to look at our own interior, accepting it for what it is or deciding to make some changes.
According to the prevailing narrative this time has been equally oppressive for everyone. But many introverts had initially welcomed it and still don’t mind it at all. Not everyone is a fan of convivial meetings and weekend team-building sessions, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like their colleagues or their job. Admittedly, not everyone has missed hugs and kisses, but that doesn’t mean than they don’t need or seek closeness to others. I know a psychologist who locked up his office during the pandemic and has been meeting his clients in the woods. Their confessions were witnessed by the old groves. Fallen branches crackle under the feet without giving a thought to human peculiarities. After all, every tree is different if you look close enough. And then there’s this elderly teacher at a children’s music school I heard about, who had to switch to online teaching. Since she has neither a computer nor a mobile, she gave classes on her landline. Who knows if she held the receiver pressed to her ear the whole time, or if she placed it on a chest of drawers somewhere in the dark hallway, as the sounds of a cello came streaming from it. When the music stopped, she gave tuition to her pupils. This was not just a time of restrictions but also of individual inventiveness and poetry on many inconspicuous fronts.
“November” as we remember it wouldn’t be possible these days. Looking back at the crowds, bodies pressed upon bodies, unprotected and dreaming our joint dream of freedom, there is an air of nostalgia to it now, unreality even. Over the past thirty-something years we’ve had a chance to get to know each other better, only to discover how other, different and indeed incomprehensible to each other we are. Nowadays the virus is by no means the only thing that isolates and divides us. If we were to gather in the squares today, rather than overthrowing the totalitarian regime, we would bring hospitals to a collapse. Fortunately, “freedom” is not just the enormous freedom of rallies held in squares, it is something that starts inside each one of us, anew every day. Staying at home need not necessarily mean that one is retiling one’s bathroom.
Photo: Peter Župník
On 18 March 1952 an article entitled “Nothing can be taken for granted. In praise of the time of poverty” appeared in the German paper Die Neue Zeitung. Of course, everything – including diaries – tried to sound fresh and entirely different from what life had been like under the Nazis. The author of the article was Kurt Kusenberg. A mere seven years after the end of World War II and the writer is harking back with nostalgia to the era that followed the crushing defeat of his country? The time when streets were strewn with debris from bombed out buildings and the wreckage was littered with corpses? Hundreds of thousands were starving and living on the streets. Mail was not being delivered. Trains and public transport didn’t run. And someone was missing this time?
In the early 1950s, as the author looked back on the previous period, he thought that those had been the days when people picked up the pieces and pieced together again the web of shattered interpersonal relations the way children do when playing with building blocks. He strongly recommended his readers to think back on the postwar period when they had to eke out a living, on the poverty, cold, suffering and danger as the country lay in ruins. Human morality and the social contract had to be redefined. Nobody thought it was indecent to be crafty and slimy, even to steal food if they were hungry. But this kind of outlaw life also had its outlaw code of honour, which may have been more moral than the “cast-iron conscience of today” Kusenberg railed against, alluding to the ubiquitous hypocrisy, falsehood, lies and scheming.
The same goes for us: we ought to refresh our memory of the days and weeks soon after 17 November 1989. Not only had the Peoples’ Militia, with its 84,821 combat-ready troops, not yet been abolished, but on 22 November some four thousand of them arrived in Prague, fully armed, to defend the dictatorship.
I experienced the chilly days in the city’s squares as a twelve-year-old boy. The day that has lodged most deeply in my memory is the cold, sunny 10th of December 1989. The crowds that turned up for the “Europe, here we come!” march across the border to Austria on that day were so enormous that the border guards in Berg couldn’t keep up with the checking of passports and the collecting of completed border crossing forms. White slips of paper covered the ground in their thousands like swathes of snow. A quarter of a million citizens crossed the border. The whole of Wolfstahl, the last village in free Europe, was on their feet, out in the streets or at least in the windows, welcoming the visitors with smiles, hugs and mugs of hot tea. Tens of thousands gathered on the bank of the Danube at Hainburg across the river from Devín Catle. Only the river continued to flow calmly amid the general excitement. People put the web of shattered relations back together like children. They rattled their keys were but that wasn’t enough to drive the demons away. Our all too gentle revolution has not swept away all of the tyranny: it has just moved it to other shoulders. A single event is not enough; what we need is a process. It can’t be done in weeks or months, it takes decades. It is easier to bring about change in the streets than in the minds of people. Back then the marches were headed by men. The breakthrough march of the future will be led by women.
Photo: Peter Župník
To ask someone in his early eighties to contribute to a series entitled “Let’s get started” could be seen as a sign of respect as well as a bit of an affront. Especially if you take it as permission to start forgetting. But how much more fun to think back, choosing to forget Péter Esterházy’s warning that lying is damned difficult if you don’t know the naked truth.
Because, you see, the naked truth is a quite an elusive thing. Not just on anniversaries which tend to come round with great regularity. And especially when it comes to events that we have lived through, when we can choose between two different kinds of truth: the truth of my own or our joint memory on the one hand, and their truth on the other, the truth imposed on us by the media, the school, and politicians. Not to mention conspiracy theorists and other manipulators.
Growing up, I witnessed historical changes twice, when I was six and nine years of age, too young for proper reflection. By the third time, in November 1989, I was fifty, which may have been too late. And when the current plague, which no one had predicted, struck us I was over eighty. An age that is equally unsuitable as well. Meanwhile, however, big and small history happened, the kind of history no institute of national memory can capture, let alone a single memoir writer. The world has kept changing to a greater or smaller degree, falling apart more often than it has been put together, despite the incredible energy expended on the latter task. All my life I’ve believed that we should make the world come together. I still hold fast to this belief, since at my age it would be very hard to make a new start. I have made a truce with the past and a temporary armistice with the future. But that does not mean that I would stand in the way of anyone intending to make a new start. For it is never too late to get started on putting together a better world, if such a thing is possible. Good luck! And good health and common sense!
Photo: Peter Župník
Animals in the forest were furious that Bear and Rat were the only animals deciding who could drink from forest’s only spring – and how much.
After many years of trying, the animals finally united, converged in the clearing in the middle of the forest and started chanting: Free Spring Water for All! Free Spring Water for All!
Under the leadership of Stag, the animals liberated the spring and drove Bear out of the forest. The animals celebrated all night long, dancing to the Heron Band’s new hit: “Go to hell, old Bear!”
Only Rat cowered behind the bushes trembling in fright.
While Stag celebrated the arrival of democracy, Foxes occupied all the trails leading to the spring, ready to charge admission. The rest of the animals shook their heads in disbelief.
Rat sighed with relief.
Stag declared that an election would be held on Friday to choose the spring’s administrator. Pine martens, lynxes, hamsters and bats were the first to put forward their candidacy. In the evening a photo showing Stag embracing Bear turned up, casting a shadow of doubt over Monday’s revolution. And although Hen immediately admitted that she was the one behind the fake, some animals kept saying that even if it was a fake, it had to be true.
By now Rat was laughing out loud.
The pine martens called a press conference and accused the lynxes and hamsters of corruption. The lynxes and hamsters immediately responded by drawing attention to the pine martens’ lack of patriotism. All parties concerned described the accusations as fabrications. The other animals, by now not sure who to trust, just ran in fright to and fro in the forest.
Rat laughed so hard he was fit to burst.
On election day Bear suddenly reappeared in the forest, shouting that he would clean up this pigsty and was going to stand. He won a landslide victory. After receiving a standing ovation from the animals, he took office immediately: he set the wild boars on Stag, wagged his finger at the foxes in a pretend threat and appointed Rat to head the anti-riot forces. Then he decided who could drink from the spring and how much.
Finally, the animals in the forest heaved a sigh of relief and stayed up all night celebrating their wise leader,Bear. The Heron Band played their latest hit: Welcome back, dearest Bear.
Photo: Peter Župník
In the beginning, some primordial beings took clumps of clay out of water and shaped them into islands on which life was possible. Or maybe someone offered to swing a lasso at the sun and pull it closer, fixing it at just the right distance from Earth to keep it from freezing or burning to ashes.
Nowadays these myths may sound to us like tall tales, yet they were ancient contracts that people signed with their environment to ensure that life could take on its everyday form, that things have their names and have a meaning.
The wonderful thing about these primordial contracts is that what we call nature today was one of the contractual parties. Nature reminds us of “School out in Nature”, the state-organized classes in the countryside which involved writing postcards home, the teachers reminding us that we should mention the clean air, the wonderful surroundings, and the yummy food. Nature featured in our science classes: coltsfoot in a herbarium or a frog’s nerve leaping off a pad. Or being exempt from gardening classes on account of hayfever.
All this is nature. It is the contract with nature in the spirit of naïve modernity that has transformed the wolf into a chihuahua scampering towards us on its crooked little feet and constantly scrambling into the palms offering it food.
And if nature ever made an appearance as one of the contractual parties that lent us that small clump of clay or a ray of sun, it was in the form of illness. It made the belly of my classmate’s mum balloon up, pumping it full of a liquid and before her family could get hold of the top oncologists, we found ourselves sitting on a bench of the crematorium as my classmate retched in a corner, leaning against a wooden wall, then wiping her mouth on her sleeve to receive our condolences.
And now, during the pandemic, the other contractual party has revealed itself as something we can’t get the measure of, something that gets inside us and is capable of eating us up from within, pumping us full of infection and then taking our bodies apart like items of Ikea furniture – DEÄTH. Tossed into the swirl of 24/7 news every morning, we are like Sartre’s students in black polo necks, facing this elemental force trying to pull the sun closer with a lasso.
Let’s keep going, let’s keep going!
Photo: Peter Župník
After their escape from slavery in Egypt and crossing the sea on dry ground without suffering too many casualties, the Israelites were finally free. But before they could settle down in their Promised Land, they had to spend forty long years wandering in the desert. God decreed that for them to understand what it means to be truly free and responsible, and rid themselves of their slave habits, they needed to endure forty years of trials and tribulations. This was the time needed for the generation that had spent its entire life enslaved to die out and for the new generation to adapt to their new circumstances.
Some saw the years of wandering as an opportunity for change, while for others the newly gained freedom did not compensate for the enormous suffering. To these people even the miserable alms their slave masters had paid them suddenly seemed like a kind of luxury for which it was worth going back to slavery. Nowadays we would say they succumbed to nostalgia for the past.
In 1989, as we made our crossing from totalitarianism to freedom on dry land, we thought we had leapt straight into promised land without the need for the harsh preparation offered by the desert. Instead of following orders we suddenly had to take our own decisions, and instead of gratitude for a paltry reward we had to choose from a multiplicity of options and take responsibility for any wrong decisions. On the other hand, instead of insipid manna it was exotic goods and golden calves that began to reach us from all over the globe.
But what if all this affluence, the progress and the opportunities that have opened up in these past 32 years, were nothing but a mirage, and if, rather than living in the Promised Land, we are still wandering through the desert? What if all this is just an experiment to test if we really are capable of living a free life with everything that freedom brings and demands? Responsibility for our deeds, consideration for others and for nature, critical thinking, continuous learning, public engagement and decency? Aren’t we paying too much attention to golden calves while letting real ones disappear?
If we regard this biblical story as a template, we have eight more years ahead of us: that should be enough for us to find wisdom and rid ourselves of idols and nostalgia for the past once and for all.
Photo: Peter Župník
Hi darling, it’s me, Silvester.
Yes, that upbeat guy. Ha-ha-ha. Never mind. Sorry I haven’t been in touch for ages. I know there was a time I’d write three times a day but that was before… well, a long time ago. I tried to count the other day but then I gave up. Numbers, dates, anniversaries – they’re really not my forte. No, no, I’m not trying to suggest that you’ve grown old. I respect every wrinkle in your face. I adore your scars. Including those I’ve given you. OK, maybe not those. I’m ashamed of the ones I’ve inflicted. That’s why I haven’t been in touch for so long. Bad conscience, you know. Not much of a conscience but nevertheless…. Back to those scars of yours. You are partly to blame for some of them. Just a bit. You came roaring into my life like some wayward whirlwind. You caught me totally unprepared. Oh, I’d been dreaming about you for years. I was young, full of testosterone, had a lively imagination, you know what I mean. Aged fourteeen, I went to Yougoslavia. I’d set out to buy ice cream four or five times a day. On the way to the ice cream seller, you had to pass a newsstand. Which had magazines and books. You know, the risqué kind. Like Orwell and his book with the number ’48 the other way round. An anagram. You know what I mean. I’m sure you do. Even I did. And you understand everything. By the way, that endless tolerance of yours might be something of a liability sometimes. But over there, in almost-free Yugoslavia… I thought my head would explode. Because you’re dangerous. Until I tasted you with my own tongue, I thought I could do with just a little bit of you. And I expected you’d be my guide. You were the experienced one, after all. But you’re still a real looker. You don’t seem to have aged at all. Unlike me. You see, it felt so good to walk the earth knowing that you and I, the two of us… Together yet each one for themselves. It wasn’t exactly free love but we both had our own life. I know you must have found that endless naïveté of mine irritating, I certainly did. I used to loan you out. Help yourselves, boys, have fun, I’d say. To people like Vlado. Then 1989 arrived. Fortunately. That was great. Another anagram. ’89 – ’98. It was touch and go, but you don’t need me to tell you that, of course. By then we shared a past, one that was a bit shaky perhaps, but never mind – who would dare take it away from us? And yet, it happened. But why am I telling you all this? You know better than me. Wrinkles. Scars. Amputations. And I, the naïve, well-behaved intellectual, I’d just say – help yourselves, boys! And I’d lend you out again. Including to that bastard Robo, who seemed just a harmless eager dork at first. But he turned out to be a right megadork. A real bastard. More recently, I let you go with these two bloodsuckers, Igor and Boris. Not that I’d ever pimp you out, I’ve never sunk so low. But when they came and asked you out, I just shrugged my shoulder and said, off you go. I’m sure you’ll be back. That’s what I said. To be honest, I was a bit surprised, as you weren’t their type. You hurt my feelings, you know? But I got over it. But now I’m a bit scared. Quite a lot, actually. That’s why I’m writing.
Will you come back?
Your ungrateful Silvester, not upbeat at all. Hopping mad.
Photo: Peter Župník
Dear Universe, Alan Watts once said that people are taking too seriously what the gods intended to be a game, and that the only point of life is just to be alive. I enjoy these kinds of crazy truths. Especially in November, with autumn in full swing. In November, as I dive into a lake enveloped in a haze of steam, when the liberating transparency of just being penetrates the tissues of my body and I ask myself what else is there to care about. I feel the element freezing on my skin, in perfect communication with the body, the astonishing apex of the evolution of human beings.
The same human beings who take themselves too seriously. Who, at any point in history, can launch an absurd melodrama. Fashioning a fresh form of oppression out of a cascade of tradition and prejudice. Until such a time as a revolution arrives, only to turn into oppression again. And if, by some chance, a revolution manages to bring freedom without resorting to violence, as was the case with our Velvet one, there’s always someone out there who wants to steal it. Like now. It’s naked animal instinct, craving blood and driven by a toxic mix of power, frustration, fundamentalism, neuroses and inferiority complexes. Some politicians hold this Golem’s Shem in their hand, ready to deploy it. As always.
Dear Universe, I suspect you may have created the world as an exciting and dangerous arena of madness, replaying the same theme over and over again. It is sustained by the immutable Gauss curve of humankind’s IQ. But I also suspect that when creating this game, you also created a door out of this arena.
Give me a wink, dear Universe. Unless I’m very much mistaken, the only kind of revolution that can bring freedom to humankind is an inner revolution. One that brings about the liberating transparency of being that penetrates the tissues of our bodies and makes us wonder whether anything else should really matter to us.
Lyrik H (Pavol Remiáš)
Photo: Peter Župník
When the sun sets, it is not our job to stop it. Because the sunset can’t be stopped.
There is, however, something else we can do: we can share what light is left. We can go through our pockets and rummage through our house in search of anything that will reflect at least a tiny bit of the sun’s rays. A pocket mirror. A lens from a pair of spectacles. The shiny back of a mobile. A rustproof pot.
We can capture the red glow of the sun on the horizon and direct it towards the darkness where we sense the presence of another human being: towards the face of a friend, a neighbour, a passer-by, in the hope that the one in whose direction we’ve sent the light will search their own pockets for some shiny object, an improvised mirror that will enable them to pass on the light.
I envisage it as a kind of magic laser show on a late autumn evening. People out in the gathering darkness and November fog, friends and strangers alike, united by a ray of sunshine reflected many times. I also imagine that somehow – maybe by a lucky coincidence – the ray will find its way back to the first person to have sent it out, thus closing the circle of light.
And then, once the sun has disappeared behind the horizon, the darkness that falls won’t be total. The ray of sunshine trapped among people will keep circulating like a perpetuum mobile, lighting up the dark of the night. It will never get tired or exhausted: for how could light be exhausted?
It will only grow pale in the morning, once the sun has come out and there is enough radiance around. And the sun will come out, believe you me. Because there is no way of preventing the coming of dawn either.
Photo: Peter Župník
These days my mind keeps wandering back down the winding paths our society has trodden since November 1989. And as time tends to heal wounds, I can no longer tell if the hatred that seized society in the 1990s was greater than the one that is rattling it today.
Then, as now, it has divided friends, colleagues and families.
“A question of life and death.”
I’ve been wondering what actually happened in Chicago in the 1930s. How and when was the Mafia made to lose its grip? How can it be done? Do we still have a chance of catching the train to the civilized world we keep missing by a whisker?
The situation seems to be even more critical today. New communication algorithms have created an unprecedented breeding ground for disintegration that is affecting society gripped by a fear for life. Whether it’s because of the pandemic or the collapsing healthcare system which, in this plundered and dysfunctional country of ours, was on its last legs even in “normal times”. The cynicism of our “politicians” knows no bounds. Every new “champion” of “real values” receives a warm welcome. Especially if he proudly spits the others in the face and posts it on Facebook.
Shores are drifting further apart, gulfs are getting deeper.
Is there a way out?
What is it?
I don’t know. What keeps me going is the thought of people like those who rushed help the victims of a fire in a block of flats in Prešov.
The way people respond whenever funds for treating another victim of this dysfunctional state need to be raised.
When a journalist and his girlfriend are murdered.
Or when Miro Žbirka dies.
Suddenly we discover how much we have in common.
How much is positive.
When we feel that we are part of something good.
As we did back in November 1989.
Photo: Peter Župník
A peculiar form of behaviour can be observed among some species of the trees forming part of the community we call a forest – their canopies don’t touch, leaving a small space gap between each other. There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon, known as “crown shyness”: when the crowns of trees collide in a strong wind, the brittle ends of their branches break off, leaving an empty space where they touched or collided. However, it is also possible that this is the way these trees consciously protect themselves from being infected by parasites and passing them on.
Gaps and gulfs between people arise for similar reasons. By dint of brute force and shocks. Or in order to offer us protection… Trees give us beautiful and painful metaphors.
In November 1989 we saw squares filled with people craving change. Seen from above it might have seemed that there was no space between people, that they were jam-packed like an impenetrable primeval forest, a total absence of shyness. Maybe, at that moment, they really were transformed into a single living organism inhaling oxygen and exhaling hope. But this wasn’t a nameless mass, an anonymous crowd; each tree had brought its own heart, which was beating in the thicket of tree trunks, for itself and for everyone else. This forest we call society.
It is late autumn and most trees have long shed all their leaves. Because impending winter means snow and the mass of heavy frozen water on the leaves could easily inflict fatal harm to the trees. But note that a few individual trees have endured and have held on to their leaves, to draw nourishment through them until the very last moment. We call such trees courageous. They don’t care about prestige. They are not showing off. They are not bragging. They are risking their lives, because they want to get more out of life.
Photo: Peter Župník
A time of new uncertainties and uncertain developments creates the temptation to put an end to the discomfort of an immature society.
Too many political convictions are superficial and many people’s views are swayed by loud individuals or unexpected events. Many politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, exploiting the discontent for their own advantage. They echo public opinion which they themselves have generated, eventually becoming slaves to unpredictable emotions.
But a politics that aims to dismantle everything leads nowhere. It can never increase real opportunities for people.
Throughout history, dreams of certainties have always gone hand in hand with the reality of uncertainties. This is what the real world is like. It contains a multitude of views and potential conflicts between them. In addition, our perception of the world has recently started to change. We have created bubbles of self-affirmation and simple answers, that is, zones of certainty in the virtual world. The world, however, is full of change and of challenges that demand a response from us.
If we respond to change and challenges by calling into question the basic values of liberal democracy – human dignity, freedom, solidarity and justice – or if we respond by running away from freedom, we run into a cul-de-sac. And whenever conflicting views or values bring about the destruction and suppression of truth and rational thinking, it opens more space for hatred, intolerance and aggression.
However, every crisis is also an opportunity. It is up to us how we grasp this opportunity, to what use we put it.
Rather than offering things to hate, politics should offer things that are valuable – freedom and democracy.
Freedom is a basic and fundamental value. A freedom that entails respect for law, rules of democracy ad responsibility (including the responsible running of the state). Freedom is not threatening. Rather, it is the only guarantee of a dignified life. Let us protect it from the aggressive politics of anger and hatred.
Photo: Peter Župník
I would love to write about happy beginnings. They are always filled with expectation, courage and excitement. But also concern about endings. I guess that’s unavoidable.
Last year my grandmother passed away. A few months before she died, as she combed her by then thinning hair, she told me not to be afraid. And never to have my hair cut short. The second promise was probably easier to keep.
She still managed to plant some kohlrabi and peonies that blossomed this year. Last spring I watched their leaves grow and buds open, but then summer arrived, and they lost their blossoms. Just the normal annual cycle in garden, we might say.
Because of the pandemic restrictions I didn’t get a chance to ask her what she meant by the bit of advice about fear. She had to start from scratch so many times that I’m almost tempted to say that she wouldn’t be too unsettled by a death here or there, even if was her own.
My other grandmother is looking forward to carol singers on New Year’s Day, even if she can only watch them from her window. And when winter ends, she will go to her balcony to look out for children carrying Muriena, the effigy of the goddess of winter, after last year’s procession with was cancelled.
But every winter comes to an end one day. Come spring, grandma number two will plant garlic, she’ll put it into little boxes for me and I’ll know that life goes on. It flows. With losses and without great expectations, though those who have gone leave something behind. In garden beds, old exercise books, in town squares, as well as in us. It is hope, which we sometimes try to plant so that we can find it three months later sprouting, grown to at least three centimetres.
Photo: Peter Župník
I refuse to be my own monument – monuments are used as seats for bogeymen who frighten no one, or as something for dogs to pee on.
So once the old regime was corroded to the core, the rest just rotted away. The frightened regime imploded. There was no other way. I’m not saying there wasn’t a revolution. Because what is a revolution? It is a rapid, spectacular transition, a qualitative leap, an abrupt change. It can occur, as we have seen, without a revolt – that is, without an uprising, without resistance, guerrilla warfare, mutiny. That is what happened in our case. Fortunately, no lives were lost. But that doesn’t mean that our subsequent behaviour was, or should have been, any different than in a revolution. After all, every revolution entails some mayhem.
But brute and stupid violence had by then started feeling comfortable. During the normalisation era, it got used to obedience and quiet, harmless grumbling. It reacted only to what it directly experienced and what was in its own DNA. It has no other receptors, which is what makes it brute and stupid. So it soon pulled itself together and since evil is as flexible as the world, violence, too, can bring about transformation. And it does so even more effectively if our faith in what is good is stronger than facts. Every one of us has evidence to prove this.
That is why brute and stupid violence can be overcome only by a greater force. It has to be as forceful and to inspire such respect that all it takes in most conflicts is to show its true colours. That is the optimal solution. Back then it was indeed all it took.
But what if this kind of solution is no longer viable? In the absence of an optimal solution, in order to protect itself from brute and stupid violence the community needs to apply greater force and then legally and consistently punish those who break the law.
That is why we don’t yet deserve any monuments.
Photo: Peter Župník
16 September 1989 was my wedding day, but despite having freshly tied the knot, I felt free. In the evening of 16 November my father phoned from Bratislava and said he’d just come back from a walk with a bunch of student sand that something was brewing. The next day we watched the evening news on our new “Engels” TV set made in the GDR, purchased out of the loan given to all newlyweds. We stayed up late talking about everything we’d seen and about politics in general. The day after that we were out in the square in Modra: the potter Jožo Franko, Maťo Tvrdoň, Jožo Kaufmann, Martin Sohr, Peter Bartoš, Ivana Píšová, Tomáš Píš, Zuza Macháčková, and us, the newlyweds. We were gradually joined by others. Older citizens of Modra walked around us, curious; some started berating us. Everyone was a bit scared. And the poet Jozef Mihalkovič read out a poem in the square, a new one, about November, in which God banged his fist on the table. After the ice started to break in Romania, we organized a protest March in Modra. Juro Beňovič borrowed a Romanian flag from his grammar school, cut a hole in it and when he brought it back in tatters, his teacher, Miss Pešková, slapped him on the head. We spent our first “married” Christmas at the main station, loading clothes and food for Romania.
I cannot imagine any secular holiday more wonderful than this. Despite everything that has happened since and where we have ended up today, we must commemorate and celebrate this day. As Ezra Pound says in one of his poems: “Come, let us pity those who are better off than we are.” And as long as we go on, at least a tiny flicker of hope will continue to smoulder in our midst and, one day, might burst into flame again. Because hope does not mean that everything will work out fine – rather, it is the belief that is worth taking a stand. It was Václav Havel who said that.
Photo: Peter Župník
Thirty-two years after 17 November 1989 I am thirty-two years older. Thirty-two years wiser? No, I won’t flatter myself by saying that, but I certainly have thirty-two years’ more experience.
Not all of these experiences have been positive. You put it very nicely, Václav, back in 1989, but today I know that truth and love do not necessarily prevail over lies and hatred. That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t strive every day of our lives for truth and love to prevail. Personally, I find the effort increasingly difficult, but I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by close friends as well as others who are on the same wavelength.
After November 1989 civil society twice managed to prevent Slovakia from falling into a black hole – in 1998 and 2018. Following the 2020 elections we thought everything would be fine. Sadly, it’s not and things are even worse than they appear at first sight. It is no longer a question of truth and love prevailing over lies and hatred but rather the other way around: it’s a question of preventing lies and hatred from prevailing over truth and love! In other words, prevailing over democracy and normal life of every decent human being.
A week ago I lost a dear friend, Meky Žbirka. The lyrics of the first song we wrote together, in 1977, go as follows: “Light at least a tiny candle despite all the darknesses.” Dare we hope that Havel’s hope hasn’t been extinguished after all?
Lately I’ve been gripped by greater sadness than usual. We live in constant anticipation of bad news, which duly arrives. And will continue to arrive. We are scared, whether we are wearing a face mask or not. Willy-nilly, we are being drawn into a collective hysteria. We lack distance, including from our own selves.
I am a witness who hasn’t witnessed much. I spent the events around 17 November 1989 as a fourteen-year-old in hospital with pneumonia. When I returned to school in early December with a photo for my Socialist Union of Youth ID, as all new high school students had been instructed to only a month earlier, it was no longer needed. And so, without realizing it, I stepped into a free world in which a library card and passport would play a much greater role than any other card. A card from the University Library in Bratislava, the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, the National Széchényi Könyvtár in Budapest, the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, the British Library in London.
Books and conversations with people have helped me to catch up with the parts of history I missed out on and I have come to believe in the miracle of freedom. I heard that it takes an entire generation for it to arrive. For society to wake up. When will it happen? My peers, now in their forties, are now in positions of power: some have become minor dictators and manipulators, others careerists and opportunists, collectors of titles and achievements, who regard freedom not as a gift but a commodity. Those who can afford it buy it. So sad. “But wherein lies the danger, grows also the saving power,” as Hölderlin has said.
But what if dishonest people are selling a noble idea? It seems to me that November 17 has resisted. It may be questioned, negated or ignored by traffickers of ideas – but it can’t be subjugated. It is a past that won’t leave, a hope for those who seek. “We are nothing; what we search for is everything.” Hölderlin again.
Photo: Peter Župník
Large gatherings of people have a strong effect on me because I am impressionable and easily succumb to the collective atmosphere, which never fails to bring me to tears. Because the collective has the power to rape, manipulate and control.
Collectives resemble protesting children: they know exactly what it is they don’t want. However, they are less interested in what they actually do want. Is it that they can’t yet put it into words? Or don’t they have the faintest idea of what they may wish for?
The only thing that is certain is that the minute we revealed our priorities and everyone went public with their ideas, however vague, our unity would evaporate. Our desires would be too diverse.
In spite of this I was happy to join the crowds and enjoyed the atmosphere and the mood at the snow-covered rallies that helped bring about the overthrow of the communist regime. And three decades later again, I joined the rallies For a Decent Slovakia. Both were incredibly good-humoured and free of conflict, and perhaps also incredibly naïve.
It was as if we were not aware of those on the lookout for people’s longings in order to exploit them for their own benefit. In order to copy the catchwords and slogans as they emerged and deck them out in provocative language. To gain the support of the awakened, dazzle them with the costumes they usurped only to win over those who have awakened – and then, the minute they seize power, to pursue their own goals.
The crowds that knew what they didn’t want but were, by definition, unable to express their wishes clearly, were duped. First by Mečiar. And more recently, by Matovič.
All we can do is get ready to try again, for a third time.
Photo: Peter Župník
On 17 November 1989 I was the same age as my daughter is now. Aged ten, I was handed a ticket to a life in freedom. My generation enthusiastically and quite literally grasped the new opportunities with both hands. I was lucky to grow up with wonderful peers, in an inspiring and supportive environment. I was fortunate to have embarked on a path steeped in philosophy.
I come from the generation of Husák’s children. Fortunately, our children won’t be stuck with this label. Unfortunately, their lives have suddenly been affected by the pandemic, which has curtailed their movements, friendships and family reunions. Instead of the playground they had the virtual world. Instead of smiles they had emoticons. Their experience is the exact opposite of ours. Thirty-two years ago, for the first time, we were free to cross the border to Austria. Our children have been waiting for their chance to be free so that they can run safely to a playground.
But children are much quicker at switching optics than we are, and capable of finding something new in unexpected places. Let us shed our disillusionment and look at the days to come through their eyes. New challenges as well as new islands of hope and freedom have begun to emerge from Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid present. The youngest have shown consideration for and solidarity with the oldest, an awareness of nature, the ability to follow the rules of the game, and last but not least, they have a faith in creativity that enables them to find ways of navigating unfamiliar situations.
Many new people have appeared in my life since November. Most notably, three small people. But many have left, too, and their voices are sorely missed. Much has turned into the sediment of history and can only be revisited in memories. Admittedly, our society has become apathetic and coarse in many respects. But the one legacy of November that has remained in our lives and something we have November to thank for is the experience of freedom and hope. Or, to be precise, the realization that freedom is not a “problem solved”. This is what will carry us and our children forward and sustain us through both the best and the most difficult days ahead.
Photo: Peter Župník
Maybe we were just naïve to think it would be easy. However, November 1989 did not fall into our laps of its own accord. But in addition to the amazing experience of our annus mirabilis, the magic year 1989 which nobody can take away from us, the past thirty-two years have brought up to the surface sediments of filth, betrayal, backstabbing, vulgarity, yobbishness, and idiocy. We have suffered many defeats and many of us have given up.
One of the fundamental wisdoms can be found in Virgil’s account of the path taken by the defeated Trojans, which resulted in the founding of Rome by Aeneas. The experience reflects the belief that as long as individuals and society don’t give up, defeat can be turned to victory.
After 1945 we saw the struggle for freedom suffer serious setbacks in the GDR, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and in Poland again. But we did not give up. At first there was only individual resistance, later there were smaller groups that grew bigger and bigger, until the entire country joined in. Together we turned the bitter defeats that seemed to last forever into our November victory.
Since November 1989 we have suffered more defeats. But we have safeguarded that fundamental victory: freedom. The most recent demonstration of this was the movement For a Decent Slovakia. These days it seems that the ethos of November 1989 and of Decent Slovakia has been completely lost. But we mustn’t give up, however bitter the situation seems now. If we continue on this path, we cannot lose. It is a difficult road, but in the words of the poet Vladimír Holan: ‘Being is not easy, only shit is easy.”
Photo: Peter Župník
I consider myself very fortunate that the Velvet Revolution coincided with my growing up. In November 1989 I was almost thirteen. I still remember that huge flakes of snow were falling and something major was happening. Big things were in the air. And my life lay ahead of me. As my eyes opened, so did the borders. I travelled to Linz with my parents and thought it was like New York. The Artfórum bookshop that opened in Grösslingova Street had a parrot as well as lots of books I had never even dreamed of. The world was changing before my very eyes the way it only does before the eyes of teenage girls.
Not since then have I ever felt that I was a direct participant of a socially decisive event. Until now. I recognize the feeling that has been awakening inside me for the past few months. The feeling that something fundamental is in the air. This time, too, it coincides with a key period in my life. Like many others who find themselves on the wrong side of forty, I’ve become very much aware of my finiteness, reassessing my past and daring to hope for the future. At the same time, however, the world around me has been splintering into tiny fragments. The cities I’ve lived in haven’t seen proper snow for several years now. I catch myself wondering if it’s worth teaching my son to ski. One pandemic wave after another rolls past my windows and hour-long queues form outside reopened clothes shops in the breaks between the waves. Equally long queues form outside the food bank in the village where I live. A village full of houses that may not be properly heated this winter. Despite global warming, I feel a chill running down my spine.
But at the same time, I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that it’s just my inclination to moan, a sign of ageing. I hope that a few years from now my son, too, will have a chance to experience that joyful surge of hope that comes with growing up.
Translated by Julia Sherwood